Episode #1: Caroline’s story
Does growing up poor ever leave you?
In this episode, Caroline Hughes, co-founder of Lifetise, talks about how the financial difficulties her family had when she was growing up affected how she feels about, and deals with, money.
Episode One. Caroline’s story: does growing up poor ever leave you?
In this episode, Caroline Hughes, co-founder of Lifetise, talks about how the financial difficulties her family had when she was growing up affected how she feels about, and deals with, money.
Hello, and welcome to Money & Me, the podcast where we talk honestly about money. Not about how to manage it or control it, but about how it makes us feel. Because money is so personal. It shapes our choices in life and our identity. It has the power to keep us awake at night. Money is hugely emotional, but we don’t often talk about it that way. And we want to change that.
So Who am I? Well, my name is Caroline Hughes, and I’m the co-founder of a company called Lifetise. We have a website that helps you plan how to afford those big things that you want in life. Things like buying a house or starting a family. Things that seemed to be quite normal, easy things for older generations to do. But that feel quite a bit harder or out of reach for many of us now.
If you’re interested in finding out how you could save to buy a home or if you’re interested in the cost of childcare, then you can go to lifetise.com. Everything is totally free to use. And we’re also going to be launching something that helps you pay down any debts that you have.
So when we started Lifetise, we spent months talking to friends, family, and random people, basically anyone that we could convince to talk to us, and we had really long conversations with them about money and life. Because I’m quite a psychology geek, I wanted to understand the emotion behind the numbers and behind the life choices.
So instead of asking people questions about how much money they had, or how they spent it, we asked much more deep and meaningful questions. Things like: how do you feel about money? How does it affect your life and the decisions that you’ve made? Does it make you feel anxious? Does it make you feel secure? And do you ever feel like you know what you’re doing? And my God, these sessions often felt like therapy, we’d sit with people for anything up to an hour, while they told us everything about their lives. People really opened up to us about how they felt behind in their life goals. How they often compared themselves to their more successful friends, and then felt bad about their lives. How they were staying in a job that made them unhappy, just because they needed the money. And from talking to people, it became so clear that this whole thing of money is so deeply intertwined with so much else in our lives.
The awkward ones were where we’d sit down with a couple (and we deliberately interviewed them separately so that they’d feel able to talk openly). And then when we compared notes at the end of the session, we’d find out that they had completely different viewpoints on money. So different, as in one of them would want to be sensible and really save and plan for the future. And then their other half thought money was there to be spent, and what was the point of working hard if you didn’t enjoy your money now? We’d be saying goodbye to those couples and secretly thinking: “yeah, I give that relationship about two years, max!”.
But really, it was such a good exercise for us, because we got to hear from people all of the things that were holding them back with money. We heard a lot of fear and anxiety and even in people who, by objective standards, would seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, still had uncertainty about whether or not they were getting it right. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about those conversations, and how maybe they would be good for a wider audience to hear too. So this podcast will tell a different person’s story every episode, and it’s all about the emotional relationship with money.
Since I’m going to be asking people to share their deepest darkest thoughts about money live to an audience. I thought probably only fair if I start with my own story. In the way of all good therapy sessions, let’s go back into my childhood to see what I remember about money as a child. Most people when they meet me or hear my voice, assume that I must have come from a pretty comfortable background. And I did in terms of the amount of love and support and everything we had. But financially, we were pretty poor at times. And so I was really aware of money even as a kid and I worried about it a lot.
I’m the eldest in my family. I’ve got three sisters, and my dad left us when I was eight, and it totally screwed us up financially. There was no way that my mum could work. She had four kids under the age of eight to look after. So we relied on benefits to help cover our living costs. All five of us: me, my mum, my three sisters, all lived in a small two bedroom council house. If you’re trying to picture how we all fitted, the answer is we had a bedroom with two sets of bunk beds!
I remember being quite self conscious at school about having not much money. We had free meal tickets for school lunches. Always the worry about whether or not we could afford school trips or school uniform. I think when you’re a kid, there are certain things that stand out for you because most kids just want to be like everybody else. For me, that was always getting Gola trainers when it seemed like everyone else had Nikes. I’m sure they didn’t, but it really did seem to me that I was the only kid in my lame Gola trainers!
I felt quite embarrassed that we didn’t have much money and, at times, really envious of those kids who were better off. So I did that classic kid thing of overcompensating. I did used to get pocket money, and I remember saving my pocket money and buying myself a giant stereo system that had flashing graphic equalisers. I mean, this was the 80s. So it was the size of a small chest of drawers, and so big that as a skinny 10 year old, I could only just carry it. But I proudly took it to school on the last day before the holidays, when you’re allowed to bring in a toy from home. I remember the other kids were really impressed. And I bathed in the glory of their reactions. For once I had something that they wanted. And I think it was me trying to say, look at this enormous stereo. I can’t possibly be poor. My kid brain was just saying, go for something really big with flashing lights that will impress them.
Even as a teenager I had quite a distorted image of our situation. I’ll give you an example. A friend’s dad was a milkman and it was back in the day when you still had milk delivered to your house in glass bottles. Remember that? He drove a milk float around the local area delivering milk to people’s homes and picking up their empty bottles to take back to the dairy. I remember once he let me have a go driving the milk float, which was brilliant. Anyway, as a milkman, he can’t have made much money. But I do remember being envious of their house, because it had three bedrooms. And that meant my friend got her own room, which was something I could only dream of. In my envy, I sort of ignored the facts. Like the fact that her dad had to go out at 4am every day to do this milk round when it was cold and dark. And that he relied on tips from customers at Christmas, to be able to buy my friend’s presents. All I saw was the bits of her life that seemed to be better than ours.
How money shapes my views
I think as humans, we’re always comparing ourselves against other people. We’re hardwired for it, right? But we seem to have a tendency to spend more time comparing ourselves to people that we feel have more than us. There’s this whole thing fueled by social media, which I think is now called “compare and despair”. I definitely had that as I was growing up. I knew we were poor. I was embarrassed that we were poor. I think when you have that in your childhood, it really does shape your feelings about money going into adulthood.
One of the biggest things in my life has been my need to have financial independence, to know that I can earn enough money to support me, but also to be able to support my mum and my sisters if they need it, and to have a safety net. All of that is huge for me. Growing up without much money has also shaped my views on the wider topic of money and society. So I’ve got strong feelings about equality and fairness and how there’s absolutely no need for anyone to be a billionaire. I don’t care if you’re planning to colonise Mars, or if you’re giving loads of it away to charity. You’ve got too much money, you should probably pay your taxes and you should probably pay your workers more.
I particularly hate the stigma that we have in the UK around benefits. That terrible slogan of “strivers versus skivers”, that suggests that anyone who needs benefits is a lazy scrounger. It’s so untrue and it’s so unkind. Life happens to people. Stuff goes wrong It’s not personal failings, it’s just life. There are many reasons why people might need benefits. And I just really hate how we treat people in this country. Whereas you look at Scandinavian countries who have a very generous social welfare system, things like totally free education, totally free childcare, and they don’t demonise people who use those services, and nor should we. Okay, mini rant over. I think a lot of that comes from my upbringing. I want people to feel financially secure. That’s essentially why I created Lifetise: to help people feel better about money.
Money and work
Thinking about what’s been the biggest influence that money has had on my life, and I think that it’s probably my approach to work. I’ve never really been driven by the idea of being rich, but I’ve definitely been driven by the fear of being poor and not having enough money and all of the worry and anxiety that comes with that. The mantra in the back of my mind is always been: “make sure you’re okay; make sure you’ve got enough”. And that’s really fed into how I’ve approached work, even from a young age. I started working when I was 15. My first job was as a Saturday girl at Tony and Guy hairdressers. I worked from nine in the morning till about 7pm every Saturday, washing people’s hair, sweeping up the hair from the floor. I got paid the life-changing amount of 12 pounds for the entire day. Actually, that makes it sound like I worked in the Victorian era! We used to tell the customers that it was our birthday when we were washing their hair, so that they’d give us a tip (usually an extra 50p or a pound), which when you’re being paid 12 quid for the whole day is actually a lot. But overall, it didn’t really matter to me that I was paid so little money. It was the fact that that money was mine. It was was my first taste of financial self reliance. And it was kind of only really upwards from there!
At 16 I worked in a shopping centre food court selling giant cakes and glazed doughnuts. I’d just started a new school where I didn’t know anyone, to do my A-levels. So I used to take in a big box of leftover cakes the next day to try to get people to like me. It really makes me laugh – I clearly didn’t feel that I could rely on my personality to be able to make any friends so I needed to bribe people with slightly stale cakes!!
Then I worked for years at H&M (or Hennes is as it was called, back in the day). They paid the best wages on the high street and the 25% clothing discount meant that I could buy new clothes really for the first time. Most of our clothes growing up had been hand-me-downs. My grandmother’s friends would come around with black bin bags full of clothes they were getting rid. Which I think is probably where my love of vintage clothes comes from. I vividly remember the first thing I bought from H&M with my wages. Nothing practical for me! Instead, I bought this big, glamorous, fake leopard print coat. It was 64 pounds 99 and then obviously I got my 25% discount. I loved it so much that I kept it for about 15 years.
Scared of university debt
At university, I was so scared of having any student debt that I worked two jobs during term time. I’d managed to transfer my H&M job up to Manchester, so I would cycle a 12 mile round trip to the H&M in the Trafford Centre at weekends – along the side of a dual carriageway in that heavy diagonal rain that you only get in Manchester. It was when David Beckham was still playing for Manchester United, and quite often Victoria Beckham would be in H&M. I mean, it sounds mad now the idea that she shopped there, but she’d be there buying clothes for baby Brooklyn and so sometimes I would chat to her and her sister – very strange! Then my other job was as an aerobics instructor. I trained as an aerobics instructor in Moss Side in Manchester. I taught fitness classes because they paid so well for a student. You got paid about 20 quid a class and sometimes I would do two or three classes a day. It was a lot of step classes at that time and a lot of legs bums and tums!
I was very lucky because I started university before you had to pay tuition fees. And I even got a small government grant of a few thousand pounds to help with accommodation costs and stuff. If I hadn’t have got that, there’s no way I would have been able to afford to go to uni. I wouldn’t have become a lawyer and I would have had a totally different life.
I completely understand why people now have worries about student loans. I hear from a lot of people that they feel that student loans are always hanging over them. And of course because you’re having to take on tens of thousands of pounds of debt before you even started your first job. That’s a really big deal. I know that I would have been too scared to do it. I know that it’s sort of become normal and expected that that’s what you do now. But still, I think it’s psychologically quite a burden that you take on at such a young age. So I do feel I was just very lucky with the timing of it. Because the combination of the grant that I got, and all of those mad jobs that I did, meant that I left university without any student debt, which was a really big deal for me. I didn’t want to have any debt. I was very scared of it.
But the downside was that I trained myself to expect to have to work very, very hard. I always had the little voice telling me that I needed to make sure I was making enough money to be okay. And it was quite a different experience for a lot of my friends. They came from backgrounds where their parents were able to give them money for university, and that wasn’t a possibility for me. I didn’t have a financial safety net. I was, and I still am, my own financial safety net. And I think that’s true for a lot of us. We don’t really talk about it. But it’s, again, psychologically quite a big thing when you feel most of the time that you have to be so self reliant.
That feeling hasn’t ever really left me. I’m definitely still one hundred percent a workaholic. I am trying not to be, but not very good at it. I always need to know that I’ve got enough money coming in. Otherwise I get really, really stressed. I chose my career being a lawyer, because it paid well and was pretty stable. I remember at school, I was torn between: did I want to be a writer (a journalist) or a lawyer? I was worried I wouldn’t earn enough as a writer and I didn’t feel with my family financial situation that I could risk that. So I did law at university, even though I knew I would find it really dry as a subject. That wasn’t the point. I knew that it would lead directly to a job. And that was much more important for me. I wanted to know that I was going to get enough money. To make me feel financially secure, and also to be able to help out other people in my family if they needed it.
Deciding to be a lawyer
I also totally fell for the city law firm sales pitch. I don’t think you get this on other uni courses. So let me explain how it works, because it’s insane. The big law firms come around to your university. They pay for expensive nights out, basically wining and dining the law students to persuade them to apply to their firm. And when you’re skint as a student, it’s very seductive. It’s like “thanks a lot for this lovely party you’re throwing us, where do I sign?” I wasn’t naive. I knew that they expected you to work really long hours. I knew being a solicitor was probably quite boring, but still I went for it. The law firm also threw us a big party on the walkways of Tower Bridge! I can’t stress enough how much money they spend on students.
Then there’s the starting salary. When I qualified as a solicitor (so two years after starting as a trainee, and they paid me £50,000 salary. And for somebody who was used to doing retail or temping jobs where you got paid maybe like £6 or £10 an hour, it seemed like an absurd amount of money to pay someone so junior. How on earth could I be worth that much money if I didn’t know anything? But I did fall for it quite a bit. I honestly thought I would get to be a big shot partner in a law firm making half a million quid a year. And that would get me a nice house in Hampstead. I thought I’d be sorted for life. I realise now how crazy and arrogant that sounds, but that’s what I thought it was all for. All the studying, all those temping jobs, all the interning at law firms, and all the all-nighters that I had to pull where I’d be working 36 hours without sleep. I thought that was the deal. I do all of that, and then I get the big payoff. I don’t have to worry about money anymore and I can look after my family.
Trouble was, I hated the reality of being a lawyer in a law firm. I didn’t want to make partner, I couldn’t do the politics bit. I didn’t want that life. I managed to stick it out for six years. And then I left. I know, there’s a lot of pressure today to pursue your dreams; to do work that makes you happy; to find a meaningful career. That’s great if you can get it. But I also think it’s fine to choose work based on other reasons. Whether that’s because it pays well, even if you find it boring, or because it lets you work from home and that helps with your anxiety. Or maybe because it’s nine-to-five and that gives you time to do other things you love.
The struggle: financial security or taking risks?
I want to wrap up this episode by talking honestly about some of the choices I’ve made in life which contradict my need for financial stability. It’s a bit strange. I genuinely, because of my upbringing, really crave a level of financial security. But at the same time, I’ve made some pretty unusual life choices. It’s like I have one part of my brain that’s desperate for stability; that wants me to keep things really safe. And then another, I think, more aggressive part of my brain that is really happy to take risks. Well, that side seems to be winning, because I haven’t really taken a standard path.
After I left the law firm, I decided I wanted to work in the fashion industry. So it took a £25,000 pay cut. Looking back on it, that makes me feel a bit sick. But I also appreciate what a privileged position I must have been in to be able to drop that much salary. I honestly think that above a certain amount of money that you’re being paid, you sort of don’t really notice it. Again, I don’t think we really talk enough about how your mindset shifts when you go from having no money and not expecting to have any money. To suddenly having plenty of money and being very comfortable. After a while, you get used to that new level of comfort. It becomes like a new normal for you.
There are a few things maybe I wish I’d done differently. I never bought a house. I nearly did a couple of times back in the time around the financial crisis, so 2008, 2009. But each time I found something that I liked, I’d pull out. I think I was too scared of the financial commitment. House prices kept going up, and I would just bottle it. I now look around and all of my friends who weren’t as scared as I was about this, they all bought flats and made loads and loads of money out of that. I’m still renting and I’m 42 and most of the time, I don’t really think about it. I get to live somewhere that I couldn’t afford to buy. But I do sometimes have a bit of anxiety that I’ve maybe missed the boat on being able to afford a home and get a little bit anxious about the future. Sometimes I make myself feel dreadful when I add up how much I’ve spent on rent over the last 15 years in London instead of putting it towards a mortgage. But then I remind myself that in loads of places in Europe, renting is the normal way. Most people don’t own their own homes. And then that calms me down a bit.
There’s not much I can do about it anyway, because I’ve spent any money that I could put towards a house deposit on my startup! If anybody listening to this is thinking of starting their own business, that’s great. I think you’re really brave. Also, I need to tell you that startups are so incredibly chaotic in the early years that please make sure that you have another way to make money until your startup takes off. For the past few years. I’ve worked part time as a freelancer to pay for it. Remember that workaholism I talked about earlier. Well, this is it, juggling multiple clients; never knowing exactly how much I’ll make each month. Needing to make enough money to pay for our living costs, plus covering the costs of the startup. It’s huge amounts of pressure and at the same time, I know how lucky I am even to be able to give this a go.
So if you’re listening to this and you’re a freelancer, or you have started your own business: well done, you crazy little hero!! And anyone who’s feeling the pressure as the breadwinner? Yeah, I feel that too. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. So please be kind to yourself.
My hope with these podcast stories is that we get to see that none of us has it all figured out when it comes to money. We’re all making choices and doing our best. So thanks for listening to my story. And if you enjoy these episodes, please leave a review, and share them with others who you think would benefit from hearing honest conversations about how we feel about money. See you next time.